Denarau FIJI, 27 March 2023—A Pacific Islands Forum conference gathering the top global minds on international law in Fiji this week is putting the spotlight on sea level rise as it implicates statehood and persons.
Delegates who work with climate change, oceans, human rights, and the Law of the Sea are spending the next three days unpacking complex questions for the future of our large ocean states of the blue continent.
In opening remarks to a regional conference on statehood and the protection of persons affected by sea level rise, Forum Chair, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown highlighted the anxiety and questions facing island nations losing shorelines and water security to the rising tides.
“You are at the forefront of ground-breaking work that will influence a legacy for our children and future generations into perpetuity,” said PM Brown in a recorded opening presentation to the hybrid event.
Sovereignty, lands and homes, fundamental and universal rights and freedoms, and the status of states are questions that “are difficult but real- they require solutions,” he said.
“We are at a new frontier and the world once again looks to us to steer the way despite the problem and injustices being caused by others. This is our lived reality. This is our “climate emergency.”
The four-day conference in Nadi, Fiji, is chaired by the High Commissioner of the Cook Islands to Fiji, HE Jim Armistead, supported by the Forum SG Henry Puna and Deputy, Dr Filimon Manoni, and attended by Pacific Islands Forum members including national, regional, and global officials, experts and diplomats working on the legal contexts of climate change impacts on ocean states.
In his opening, the Forum Chair described the 2021 Pacific Islands Forum Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change Related Sea Level Rise (2021 PIF Declaration), as a ground-breaking benchmark and “an excellent starting point for this Conference. We must continue to be meticulous, deliberate and patient to bring about real, progressive development of international law. We must also continue to enhance our active engagement with key bodies such as the International Law Commission and International Law Association.”
“We must continue to leverage geopolitical interests and opportunities to advocate for and secure our legal rights and entitlements into perpetuity. Now, more than ever, our identity and advocacy are vital,” he said.
Amongst other issues, the conference will look into next steps for the 2021 PIF Declaration, and the mandate from Leaders to recognise the impact of climate change of Pacific peoples and statehood.
In his welcome remarks, Forum SG Henry Puna noted “the gravity of the task put to us- the IPCC has recently released the Synthesis Report of its 6th Assessment Cycle, re-emphasising yet once again, the grim forecast on the effects that climate change, and sea-level rise, will have on our island states.”
He said the task for the conference would be to “collectively and courageously share our ideas, and skilfully weave a framework, that harnesses both a collective understanding, and innovative solutions, on a way forward for our region. We, on the front line of climate change, will inevitably pave the way on these complex issues.”
He urged continued focus on the efforts of the Pacific to “to keep global emissions below 1.5 degrees in accordance with the Paris Agreement. We must not lose sight of the bigger picture– climate change is an existential threat to our Pacific family and ensuring that we keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees, must always remain a top priority for us.”
Keynote speaker for the event, Tuvalu Minister of Justice, Communications and Foreign Affairs Hon. Simon Kofe, told the conference “It is imperative to remember the reason behind our gathering. Our discourse is not limited to legal instruments and policies, but encompasses the survival of our people and nations,” he said.
Minister Kofe is also amongst those presenting to the closed sessions which will allow delegates to identify and prioritise options for Pacific nations withstanding the worst of the climate crisis.
“We have the power to make a significant impact by acting urgently and decisively. We must take an active stance, anticipate worst-case scenarios, and protect our Blue Pacific’s future…the decisions we make today will shape the future of our region for generations to come. Let us be courageous in our choices, bold in our actions, and united in our efforts. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to leave behind a legacy of resilience and hope.”
Speaking for the Pacific Community, Director General Dr Stuart Minchin noted that significant progress has been made, but much work remains to be done.
“Many in this room contributed to the drafting of the 2021 PIF Declaration. This declaration makes clear the Pacific’s collective intention to maintain maritime zones, once established and notified to the UN, without reduction.”
Joining online from Noumea, he urged those present to review the status of national maritime zone limits and to advocate for the urgent conclusion of this work.
“The science alone will only take us so far—a people-centred approach is critical to tackling the climate crisis,” said DG Minchin, “SPC may be the region’s principle scientific agency, but we recognise that for science and development advice to be effective, it must be rooted in legal and political contexts, a deep understanding of Pacific peoples, cultures, behaviours, and ways of knowing.”
The regional conference on statehood and the protection of persons affected by sea-level rise was convened by the Forum Chair and is organised by Forum Officials groupings related to the theme of the meeting. Conference outcomes are expected to go back to Forum Officials for further discussion and final reporting back to Pacific leaders, later in 2023. —ENDS